EDITORIAL: On Adam, Eve, and Gender Roles
Updated: Dec 31, 2020
You'd think the ancient scribe who first imagined Eve had seen this coming -- certainly she is the more interesting of the pair, more resilient. But in that before time she became a sort of canvas on which centuries of the learned and the brainless felt free to sketch their interpretive portraits, an accumulation that leaves the actual woman in the story almost unrecognizable. One of the more damaging images is the result of a misreading of the second creation account. Eve as the helper, the inferior, the one who the blame is put upon. It's the one in which Yahweh fashions the man from the soil (earth, adama), then the birds and animals. Then, seeing that the man needs a companion, a mate, Yahweh puts him to sleep, takes a rib, and creates one. But, one what, exactly?
In Hebrew, the phrase is 'ezer kenegdo, which, for centuries, has been translated as "helper," or "helpmate" -- the little woman. But biblical scholars Robert Alter and Richard Elliot Friedman, their arguments convincing, translate the phrase, respectively, as "sustainer beside him [the man]," and "a strength corresponding to him." In other words, the woman was created in order to be a partner -- an equal partner. Moreover, given that adam is the Hebrew word for "human," not "man," Eve is as much an adam as Adam. In fact, regarding the first creation story, scholar Tamara Cohn Eskenazi writes, "By referring to adam, the text is not describing an individual but a new class of beings that comprises female and male from the start, both of them in God's image. ... Our humanity comes first; our sexual identity next."
There is nothing in either creation narrative that places the woman in an inferior position to the man -- not her sex, not her place in the order of creation, and not the reason she was created. So, why the long history to the contrary? The short answer is that in the flux and flow of history, there came a moment when a fall-guy was needed, and those making the choice were all men.
Known in Jewish history as "the great divide," the year 586 BCE witnessed the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the first Temple, and the beginning of half a century of exile of Israelites from their promised land. Then, in 532 BCE, after the Babylonians fell to the Persians, Cyrus granted the Israelites the option to return. Those who chose to go back were haunted by the idea that, somehow, their ancestors had tweaked the divine nose and lost the protective shield. But how? Nobody had a clue. The elders who might have remembered were dead, along with their deep, nuanced understanding of the sacred texts and the old, pre-exile Hebrew in which they'd been written. With no place else to look but their sacred writings, when answers weren't forthcoming with sufficient clarity, the role of the interpreter was born. None who ended up in this role were women.
Grabbing their attention was the story of Adam and Eve thumbing their noses at the divine command not to eat the fruit of that tree. Some interpreters concluded that the fault lay with Adam and Eve, at least in part. And they saw an obvious order of guilt. First place went to the serpent, of course. Eve took second: while either human could have just said no, she could have said it first. Among the many ironies in this real-world drama is how it underscores Adam as a victim, a position he'd claimed already with, "[T]he woman... gave it to me and I ate it." Exactly the point they seemed to miss! He ate it -- an act of free will! Yes, Eve tried passing the buck as well, but they wouldn't allow it. By failing to hold Adam to the same standard of responsibility demanded of her, Eve's vilifiers made him not more than her, but less. His becomes an image not unlike what Rosen calls the "omega male," that product of American pop culture who "can be sweet, bitter, nostalgic, or cynical, but he cannot figure out how to be a man."
Had early interpreters been content to say that scripture proved Eve to be an inferior, and leave it at that, there'd have been little about her to capture the imagination. Guilt made her infamous. The image of this Inferior-Guilty Eve as the woman who brought us all down would define her and her gender for the next 2,500 years, right up to the modern era, when fluid attitudes about religion and morality would transmogrify her guilt into naughtiness and take her into pop culture. In the decades following the Second World War, secular interpreters -- creators of imagery in advertising, for instance -- began tinkering with Eve's likeness, taking liberties that most would not dare with the Virgin Mary.
Enter Hooker Eve. You've seen her, the barefoot hottie from TV commercials and magazine ads, holding the apple with the missing bite, wearing minimalist cave-girl couture, all of it a barely subtextual suggestion that "if you want some of this, buy some of that." This iteration of the biblical character attempts to represent a modern, hip, liberated view of women, but is only another expression of the same, millennia-old idea about women, their value and place in society. She's Inferior-Guilty Eve with less clothing, and disposable.
Beyond the religious and secular interpretations is the original character, Genesis Eve, the woman as the writers, and particularly the author of the second creation story, imagined her: strong, vulnerable, neither apologetic about her womanhood nor tempted to cheapen it. She is carnal, and she is neither afraid of sex nor only about sex. Her partner never says or implies that her sex is inferior to his own, or that she bears more, or less, responsibility for the incident at the tree, or for the consequences that enveloped their lives as a result. And if you like irony, you'll want to notice that, unburdened by Bible-based standards, this Eve is naked as a Jaybird right up to the point that she and Adam are busted.
While women in today’s world are discovering new, empowering answers to the question "Who and What are We?" many men, feeling the old, foundational answers not evolving so much as crumbling beneath their feet, are discovering a trackless present and future never imagined by their fathers. These findings in Rosen's article reveal a gender migration hardly imagined forty years ago, and that is now upon us. Upon us -- the men and the women. As Eve steps forward, as the monopoly on power slips away from men, I hope she'll be the partner he was not, that he'll find the grace to take his place beside her, and that we humans, male and female, together will find the wisdom to not let the world be tilted in the favors of one gender over the other.